Bitter Sweet: Why is sugar being labelled as the new monster?

  • Meenakshi Iyer, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Oct 09, 2015 18:14 IST
Why do we crave sugar so much? And exactly how much of it are we consuming? (HT File Photo)

British chef Jamie Oliver, one of the most recognisable faces in the food industry, is waging a war against sugar. If you follow the celebrity chef on Instagram, it is unlikely you’d miss updates on his latest crusade. Last month, Oliver’s documentary, Sugar Rush, which premiered on Channel 4 in the UK, urged the government to introduce a sugar tax in order to fight childhood obesity and diet-related diseases. “I want to see the introduction of a 20p (pence) levy per litre on every soft drink containing added sugar — this equates to about 7p per 330ml can,” reads his campaign manifesto. This tax can reduce the consumption of sugary drinks in the UK by 15 per cent, he claims.

While his campaign managed to gather more than 1,45,856 signatures and saw support from celebrities like Britain’s Got Talent judge Alesha Dixon and celebrity couple Millie Mackintosh and Professor Green, unfortunately, it failed to find takers in the British government. Oliver’s plea was rejected two weeks ago.

Find out how much sugar is hidden in your food

We looked up food labels on everyday essentials like juice, biscuits and cornflakes, what we found out will shock you

Source: All sugar content as declared on packaging labels (Illustration: Chetan Patil, Ravi Jadhav / Hindustan Times)

So, What’s the fuss about sugar?

For the past few years, many of us — especially those in cities — have found ourselves transitioning to low-fat milk and brown bread instead of its unhealthy (or believed to be unhealthy) versions. Now, we are being asked to be wary of sugar too.

But why do we crave all things sweet? The answer lies in evolution. Years ago, our ancestors — apes, to be specific — survived on a diet of sugar-rich fruits. Sugar helped them store fats, which was a necessity since there was no guaranteed supply of food back then. However, after years of evolution, man has learnt to regulate his meals, so the body doesn’t require high levels of sugar. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), men are allowed nine teaspoons of sugar, whereas women can consume six teaspoons per day, since men and women have different calorie needs.

How much is too much?

It’s not just Oliver; many health experts are also warning against added sugar in our food. This kind of sugar is anything that is not naturally present in the food. Sugar is often added to everyday products to make them palatable. “Just a can of soda contains about eight teaspoons of sugar, well over the daily recommendation of sugar for women,” says Dr Pradeep Gadge, consulting diabetologist at Gadge’s Diabetes Centre, and visiting consultant at Breach Candy Hospital.

According to the Diabetes Atlas published by the International Diabetes Federation, about 50 million people in India are diabetic, and the number is expected to rise to 69.9 million by 2025, unless preventive steps are taken. It is not surprising that India has been called the diabetes capital of the world at some point. However, the latest figures suggest that China has surpassed India.

These alarming figures are further supported by a string of lifestyle diseases that have emerged in the past few decades. “Excess sugar does more than just rot your teeth. It weakens immunity, robs your body of vitamins and minerals,” he adds. Apart from this, diabetes also gives rise to other allied conditions like a heightened risk of heart diseases and high blood pressure.

Last month, when actor Milind Soman (fresh from his Ironman success) was asked about his fitness mantra, he swore by a zero-sugar diet. As well-educated, news-consuming folks, we have often come across various researches on whether sugar is good or bad for us. But the real reason to worry is when sugar lobbyists field for research to tip in their favour.

“Makers of sugary foods sometimes go to great lengths to downplay their products,” says Dr Gadge. For instance, manufacturers often list sugar content in their product right at the end of the table, often masked as glucose. This tactic is meant to confuse the buyer.

What’s the solution?

So, how does one escape the hidden sugar in our food? The first step is to read the labels. Whenever you pick up a juice pack, or cola, or flavoured drinks, check the label to see how much sugar has been added. Steer clear of products that list sweetners like corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, cane sugar and malt syrup, among other things.

While the general awareness in India is lower than in the west, some restaurants and eateries in the city are mindful of the ill effects of sugar. “All our products are free of processed sugar. They are made using natural sugar,” says Marissa Bronfman of Bowl Bar, a newly launched vegan delivery service. At Andheri-based He Said She Said, patrons can choose sugar-free cocktails and shots.

At both The Woodside Inn and The Pantry, special attention is paid towards using natural sweeteners like honey and jaggery. At The Yoga House (in Bandra and Colaba), tea and coffee are served with organic jaggery. Apart from this, natural sweeteners like honey, raisins and dates are used in desserts. Lamya Arsiwala, director, The Yoga House, says, “People’s awareness of sugar is limited, unless they have diabetes in the family or they themselves are diabetic. Sadly, people who merely relate sugar to weight gain are unaware of the effects on other parts of the body such as your cardiovascular and nervous systems, and its addictive nature.”

Natural sweeteners according to Marissa Bronfman, Bowl Bar, an upcoming vegan cafe in Mumbai

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